Drawing as much from Larry Clark, Harmony Korine, and Catherine Hardwicke as it does from Heathers and the Purge saga, Assassination Nation is an intense genre turducken. A part acid-tongued coming-of-age story, part femme revenge-exploitation fantasy, and part contemporary interpretation of classic historical Puritan drama (think The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter), it’s a hashtag-savage indictment of the growing “empathy gap” that bleeds from our online discourse into IRL confrontations, exacerbated by the increasingly volatile state of privacy in both realms. Yeah, it’s throwing a whole lot at the wall. A lot of it sticks.
The brainchild of writer-director Sam Levinson, son of Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson (Wag the Dog, Diner, Rain Man, Bugsy), Assassination Nation isn’t technophobic per se, but like the recently released desktop thriller Searching, it exploits a growing collective fear about what the contents of our devices say or don’t say, about who we really are. We all have something on our phone that we would rather not submit for public scrutiny, don’t we? We’ve all regretted posting a joke or sending a photo at some point. We’ve all seen the way a misguided tweet can destroy someone’s life in the time it takes to fly across an ocean, or in the way, a seemingly cockeyed conspiracy theory can explode into an active shooter scenario. Who is deemed worthy of our sympathy or our forgiveness, and who is “canceled,” cut off, made an example of? The walls of the glasshouse are closing in, but nobody seems to be putting down their stones, and now we’re surrounded by a dangerous pile of shards.
But let’s start at the beginning: The first act sets the stage in suburban “Salem,” as we watch eighteen-year-old Lily (Odessa Young), her best friend Bex (Hari Nef), and their other two best friends Sarah and Em (The Bad Batch’s Suki Waterhouse and darkwave artist Abra) navigating what looks an awful lot like “normal” teenage life, albeit devastatingly cynical and lacquered with the familiar gloss of class privilege common to certain coming-of-age fare. It should not make you want to relive those years. There’s Xanax and sexting, thoughtless, selfish love interests and patronizing, clueless authority figures, unsupervised partying, and a whole lot of social media surveillance and oversharing. It is discovered that both Lily and Bex are guarding potentially incendiary secrets, but they are definitely not the only ones, and when a mysterious hacker begins releasing data stolen directly from people’s computer hard drives and SIM cards, the town’s tenuous status quo shudders, contracts, and collapses under the weight of its own hypocrisy. Throughout, the four friends remain unshakably allied and excruciatingly canny when it comes to the systems and methods of control — physical, sexual, and social — under which they are expected to survive. Without revealing too much, let’s just say that the breakdown of these systems isn’t exactly in their favor, either.
The criminal behind the chaos is a mysterious figure named Er0str4tus, presumably after the ancient arsonist who destroyed the Temple of Artemis “for the lulz” back in 356 B.C. The legend of Herostratus is a cautionary one, about the futility of trying to stop the flow of information. Fittingly, the movie’s second act is characterized by a series of hacks that accelerate from isolated incidents exposing the relatively cut-and-dry scandals of prominent civic figures into the devolution of messy, complex revelations about the everyday transgressions of Salem’s citizenry.
Things escalate quickly, and uncannily. What follows will feel blood-curdlingly familiar to anyone acquainted with Gamergate, 4chan, revenge porn, or the increasingly politicized practice of “doxxing.” Stylistically speaking, subtlety is not what anyone is going for here; the film is soaked in porn aesthetics, littered with guns, and covered in American flags. But it also channels a vast repository of ripped-from-the-headlines cultural trauma that can best be described as “the Gen-Z inheritance.” The funhouse mirror of satire bends more in some parts, and less in others, but even at its most hyperbolic, the movie never strays that far from what’s possible, and indeed what’s already happening.
Does Assassination Nation get things wrong? Definitely. Extended split-screen party scenes and overuse of self-consciously “fancy” cinematography can at times give it a “film school final project” vibe. That said, some sequences, like a terrifying nighttime home invasion, are breathtakingly well-executed. At other times, clunky, over-expositional, and generally unbelievable dialogue spews from the mouths of (the) babes — most noticeably in Lily’s interwoven voiceovers and impassioned defense of her artwork. Then again, what else can you expect when a guy in his thirties writes for teenage girls? The choice to preface the action with a montage of “trigger warnings” (like homophobia, fragile male egos, bullying, torture, binge drinking, and many more), over a supercut of said acts, is neither an earnest nor edgy enough choice to be effective. And most depressingly, the film seems to hold itself back at the very edge of its own precipice, reining in, at the last second, the very cathartic rage it has built to.
On the other hand, what if that’s the point? Instead of hopscotching through a perfunctory plot to get to the good stuff — i.e., the sweet retribution — like more typical revenge narratives, Assassination Nation meticulously strips its protagonists down to the bolts and gives us plenty of time and opportunity to whip up our anger on their behalf. Then, it spits that “righteousness,” so to speak, right back in our faces. Levinson’s determination to poke at wounds this fresh in our collective cultural consciousness is ambitious and audacious. In me, Assassination Nation provoked an incredible psychic flinch, a visceral reaction unlike anything I’ve experienced since I first saw Series 7: The Contenders back in 2001. As much as he’s served up a nasty and ironic embodiment of our accelerating digital dystopia and its effects, he’s also given us four complex characters with arcs that resist ease and laziness at every possible turn, who show us the power of rage, but also love and empathy. Assassination Nation may not be remembered as one of the “best” movies of the year, but it’s probably the most important one.